What microscopes add: Evoking astonishment: teaching science

Part 1 of 2

Not so many years ago, as part of our writing program, I was advising PhD students at Columbia about essays for National Science Foundation (NSF) fellowships. These are generous fellowships, and hard to get, so the applications have to be carefully prepared. The NSF people had specific questions for applicants and one of them was, “What event, when you were young, helped to ignite your interest in science?” Five students remembered the baking powder plus vinegar-driven volcano in fourth grade.

Fair enough, it was a staple of my youth too, but I suggested they think of something else; reviewers get tired of the same example in every essay. “How about the Ice Volcanoes of Enceladus?” a student asked. “The what?” I said. “No kidding, it’s a real thing.”  

She was right. If you have a grade school child, let them type Enceladus into Google. They (and you, I hope) will land on the website of NASA’s Cassini Mission to Saturn, which presents an engineering and scientific marvel, and is itself an artistic accomplishment, a boutique museum of the celestial universe. Imagine a camera sent hundreds of millions of miles into space on a satellite that could send back astonishing images. 

Imagine being the astronomer who discovered ice volcanoes or an engineer who helped design and build the satellite. How can we ignite this or other interests in children? Microscopes and telescopes are good bets. About 400 years ago, telescopes and then microscopes engaged some of the greatest minds of the17th century: Galileo, Descartes, Newton, Spinoza, Van Leeuvenhoek, Hooke and many others ground lenses for these devices.  

Antoni van Leeuvenhoek and Robert Hooke are usually credited with the first microscopes. In the 17th century when van Leeuvenhoek or Hooke looked through a microscope, they saw creatures that had never been seen before — sperm, blood cells, rotifers, amoebae, bacteria, tiny plants, algae, fleas. Their drawings were published by the Royal Society, of which Hooke was a founder. In 1665, Hooke’s book of the minute organisms he saw, “Micrographia,” sold out on the first day of publication. It was an exciting time in science and art, which were not then considered separate subjects, but rather parts of the same creative spirit of discovery. Antoni Van Leeuvenhoek lived across the main square in Delft from Johannes Vermeer, who was bending and manipulating light to project images for his paintings. (I am indebted to art historian Laura J. Snyder’s new book, “Eye of the Beholder,” for this information.)

The purpose of this preamble is that primary school children are naïve observers, not so different from those giants in the 17th century. To see an unexpected universe, celestial or microscopic, engages a child. Let children channel van Leeuvenhoek and Hooke or Galileo. Let children look at what they find. 

They will have the advantage of better microscopes and telescopes, but the experience will be essentially the same as the first investigators. Let’s not separate art and science, at least for young children. Let’s not bore them with that dreary acronym STEM, for Science, Technology, Engineering and Math. 

Astonishment is the goal: the rules, questions and experiments, the subtleties and theories of science and art will appear soon enough.

I went to see Lauren Valentino, principal of the Botelle School in Norfolk, to ask about science teaching in elementary school. She was in the midst of a small crisis — a windstorm had brought down trees and blocked some bus routes so she and her staff were calmly making sure that all the students got home. That done, we chatted for a while and Valentino explained that there were new Next Generation Science Standards, produced under the auspices of the National Academy of Sciences (https://www.nextgenscience.org/). I am now about a fifth of the way through the 500 pages. It is a thorough document with many resources for teachers. It plans a program for kindergarten through high school, so it is ambitious. It is closely integrated and encourages hands-on experience. Using the new guidelines, science teachers from our local elementary schools have cooperated to plan specific units.

Among the small sample of teachers I have asked, in the first six grades microscopes are rarely used. I would be glad to hear from more teachers or parents on this topic. 

Scientific or artistic engagement would be helped if students and teachers knew how to use microscopes as easily as they take to other technology. There are simple ways to incorporate microscopes or telescopes as aides to imagination. Although I am still early in this exploration, a few suggestions will appear in the next column.


Richard Kessin is Professor Emeritus of Pathology and Cell Biology at Columbia University. He lives in Norfolk. Contact him at  richard.kessin@gmail.com.